Josh Kun is a professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the author of Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (University of California Press).
If you listen to music too soon after reading David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, especially Chapter 5 (how recording studios shape what we hear), Chapter 6 (how collaborations shape what we hear), and Chapter 7 (how recording budgets shape what we hear)—you might be in for a disorienting experience, like watching a magic show after you’ve been taught all the tricks.
I happened to put on Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, an album I’ve enjoyed repeatedly over the past few months. Suddenly, instead of the songs I’d come to know by heart, with their minimalist but emotionally brutal stabs at self-analysis that it took Apple seven years to complete, I heard an assembly of parts. I became obsessed with microphone placement and where each song was recorded, debated whether I was hearing an upright piano or an electronic keyboard, tried to picture the number of musicians, imagined Apple’s writing process (words first? music first? spread out over seven years or in spurts?), and wondered what it cost to make something sound so expensive yet so lean.
In January, President Barack Obama made his singing debut on the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. During a campaign fundraising speech, he leaned into the microphone, gently slid his State of the Union baritone up to a whispery falsetto, and nailed the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together,” the Al Green soul classic that has melted hearts and warmed sheets since its release in 1971. “I-I-I-I, I’m so in love with you,” Obama cooed. The video of his impromptu performance has logged more than four million views, and the song has become an unofficial re-election theme. Obama’s rendition is available as a ringtone; inevitably, Green showed up to sing it at an event in February.
You would be forgiven if at some point this past summer you forgot what year it was. The season’s sleeper-film hit, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, uses Sidney Bechet’s 1952 “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” as the soundtrack to contemporary Paris while its protagonist time-travels back to the 1920s on the wings of Cole Porter 78s. Beyoncé’s 4, one of the summer’s biggest CDs, revels in the silky ’80s R&B synth and horn arrangements that once made Whitney Houston an MTV fixture. Then there was indie folk favorite Bon Iver, who made early ’90s Bonnie Raitt hip again and whose self-titled second album finishes with a song that starts off sounding like ’80s hit-maker Howard Jones and ends up as the theme song to Beverly Hills, 90210.